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How A Dallas Coach Uses His MMA Gym To Build Community

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Fortis MMA
Sayif Saud (far left) and Fortis MMA fighter Miles Johns (center), who competes in the bantamweight division of the UFC.

When it comes to sports in Texas, football is king, but the state is also home to athletes in an increasingly popular contact sport: mixed martial arts.

Head coach Sayif Saud has built a powerhouse team of MMA fighters. Saud is the owner of Fortis MMA, a gym in Deep Ellum.

Currently, Saud’s team has 18 fighters in the UFC, the world's premiere MMA promotion company. Fighters on the team include Uriah Hall, Alonzo Menifield and Geoff Neal.

Fortis has one of the highest winning percentages of any team in the UFC, but the gym has also become a place where people feel like they belong.

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Fortis MMA
Everyone in Team Fortis lives in Dallas and trains together.

How Sayif Saud Got Into MMA

Saud's love for the sport started at a young age.

"I started training in martial arts when I was 3-years-old, my father owns a karate judo school in Fort Wayne, Indiana, and he's had it since 1976,” he said. “So ever since I was a kid and could really open my eyes, I've been on the mat."

After graduating from college and going to law school, Saud was a professional MMA fighter for a few years, and had a 3 and 0 record. But due to injuries, he had to stop fighting. From there, Saud moved to Dallas and began coaching at a local gym where the owner couldn’t afford to pay him. The gym didn’t even really have an MMA program.

“He said if you can build it up then I will start paying you. So, first I had one student, then I had two, then I had four, then I had six, and on, and on, and on..."

Saud Builds A Team — Fortis MMA

In December 2016, Saud opened his own gym: Fortis MMA.

In Latin, Fortis means strong, powerful and brave. In a sport where many gyms are named after their founders, Saud wanted his team to be about something more.

As the team's head coach, some of Saud's corner advice to his fighters is intense and no-nonsense.

Saud says, when you only have 60 seconds between rounds, you've got to be direct.

“This is a fist fight, sugar coating things and beating around the bush just is not efficient,” he said. “There's always a different message, and what I do is just deliver the message as efficiently and as effectively as I can. Sometimes it might be animated, sometimes it might not be."

Fighting Through The Pandemic

Last year, like many other sports leagues, UFC fights were put on pause due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Saud said, like much of the rest of the world, the pandemic was pretty hard on his team.

“Not knowing what was coming, not being able to train, trying to be responsible for the gym,” he said. “We shut down for quite some time."

But when UFC fights resumed, they were held without any fans in the stands at the usually raucous Apex, the UFC's main venue near Las Vegas.

“We were the very first fight to break the pandemic, Ryan Spann versus Sam Alvey,” Saud said. “Just like everybody else, we had to deal with the challenges and the adversity. It's been a rollercoaster, but we're working through it."

Being A Team & Community

For Saud, the continued success of Fortis MMA is all about functioning as a team. He says everybody lives in Dallas and trains together.

“We treat everybody the same, whether the guy's the main event like Uriah Hall, or the guy's a debut fight,” he said. "Nobody's better than anybody, nobody's above the team, and that's just the way we've done it."

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Fortis MMA
Fortis MMA fighter Uriah Hall (left) is ranked number 10 in the Middleweight division of the UFC. He poses with Sayif Saud (right).

That team spirit is what he loves most about coaching.

"I'm most proud of the camaraderie and the compassion that these kids have for seeing each other reach their goals,” Saud said. “The community that the gym has created, to see that, and see the gym be such a home to so many people, fighters and non-fighters, it means a lot. It's really special."

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Got a tip? Email Galilee Abdullah at Gabdullah@KERA.org.